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On 2 November, an F-15C of the Missouri Air National Guard crashed. The accident in itself is not exceptional but its cause is. After the initial findings, the USAF ordered the stand down of 700 Model C F-15s. It appears that the accident was due to structural fatigue of the aircraft – in other words, old age. Before the cause of the accident could be determined, alarm bells started ringing.
On 6 November, it was announced that the F-15 aircraft in Afghanistan had been ordered momentarily to desist from engaging in operations. The same day, Representative John Murtha, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced that he assumed that there would be orders for additional F-22s, over and above the 183 in production, in order to accelerate the modernization of the Air Force. The reason given for this was the need to modernize the Air Force before its current aircraft fell into obsolescence.
Two weeks later, the F-15 was again cleared to fly. But two weeks later still, on 28 November, the USAF Air Combat Command (ACC) announced a further selective flight suspension covering all F-15 Models A-D (the models produced between 1975 and 1995). The ACC communiqué of 28 November explained:
“MI>For the second time this month, the commander of Air Combat Command has directed a fleet-wide inspection of all ACC F-15 A through D
“The directive follows yesterday’s finding stemming from the investigation of an F-15 mishap that resulted in the loss of that aircraft on 2 November. Based on those new findings, all F-15 A through D models will undergo a stand down that will require additional inspections and possible repair actions.”
The communiqué confirmed the seriousness of the problems identified in these terms: “These findings, based on a metallurgical analysis of the mishap aircraft, have drawn attention to the F-15’s upper longerons near the canopy of the aircraft that appear to have cracked and failed. […] Manufacturer’s simulations have indicated a catastrophic failure could result in this particular area.”
The detail provided is remarkable, as is the mention of prospective catastrophic failure. The USAF was keeping nothing back and at the end of November announced a total verification and overhaul program for the F 15. Each aircraft will undergo minute inspection to determine whether the aircraft has sustained structural damage “to the upper longerons near the canopy”.
One thing is clear: certain F-15 aircraft, which have seen between 25 and 30 years of service, could well be approaching the end of their operational life. Beyond that point, the risks to the aircraft (and to the pilot) increase, as do the expenses required to keep the aircraft in a state of operational readiness. The problem is a major one, the F-15 being the USAF’s front line aircraft.
Characteristically, after a few days of reflection, the initial news of the decision to ground the USAF F 15 fleet saw some slightly skeptical comments. On 12 November, Aviation Week & Space Technology (AW&ST) commented: “USAF and industry officials say fleet groundings sometimes occur every few months for various safety issues. They say senior USAF leadership is using this grounding to push for a larger F-22 force. And while USAF was grounding its F-15s, military officials briefing an international fighter conference in London said that the F-15Cs wouldn’t be retired until 2025-30, and that the F-15E will serve beyond 2035. ‘The accident in Missouri could be unique to that [one] aircraft,’ a veteran F-15 squadron commander says. ‘And if it’s not, there are lots of fixes you can make to keep them flying. The pitch for more F-22s is what’s going on.’”
The argument was particularly credible since Murtha announced on 6 November that the USAF would receive additional F-22s (beyond the 183 officially on order), citing the need to modernize the USAF and making particular reference to the F-15 accident and the USAF decision to ground part of the fleet.
The 26 November issue of Defense News quoted Richard Aboulafia of the Fairfax Group, an authority on aerospace matters very close to the USAF and to the aviation industry, emphasizing Aboulafia’s arguments against the USAF getting additional F-22s:
Two days later, the USAF announced a second selective grounding of the F 15 fleet.
Is the USAF engaging in a public relations (PR) campaign? The details provided in the AW&ST article on the F-15’s being able to continue flying until 2030 or 2035 clearly concern the latest models – even so, the projection seems somewhat exaggerated. It must not be forgotten that there have been export sales of the F 15 to Israel, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, and that there may still be hopes of finding other prospective buyers. It is important, therefore, not to be too fast off the mark in demolishing arguments for such sales before the fact.
More generally, the fact remains that the F-15 is an old aircraft in chronological terms and that its airframe is feeling its age. The design and development of the F-X, which became the F-15, dates from 1966-69; that the first prototype flight was in 1972; and that the entry into service of the F 15 Models A and B goes back to 1974-75. The fact is that the first models to be affected by obsolescence are the versions specialized in air defense and air superiority, what the Air Force terms ‘Air Supremacy’ or ‘Total Air Dominance’.
In the light of the problems of the F-15 – be it exaggerated or not, but which are real because the Father Time knows no mercy – the case of the F 22 takes on a quite different light. The polemics concerning its cost and its technical problems are raised with less and less frequency. The aircraft has entered into service and therefore benefits from a new status as a ‘normal’ aircraft. The F-22 now is evaluated in an operational context, and from the operational standpoint, the F-22 currently fulfills a key role, given the very real obsolescence of the F-15. Murtha’s reaction is quite typical: there will be more F-22s, he announces, as if he were adding ‘since the first models of the F-15 seem to be coming to the end of their operational life’.
More F-22s? How many more? There is talk of 40 additional for sure (over and above the 183) for the next two years, but the USAF is still holding out for its early requirement (before the cutback to 183) of 381 aircraft. Taking into account numerous criticisms of the F-22 and USAF policy over the past few years, it must be conceded that, in the current context, the figure of 381, which allows the full complement of a certain number of structured units, is preferable to a sprinkling – depending upon budgetary vicissitudes – of a few dozen more F-22s. That is why, to our mind, the argument for 381 – and perhaps higher, but that is a different story – will carry the day.
Aboulafia also had this to say about the additional F-22s:
“The F-22’s real challenge is going to be its price and the US military’s budget for tactical aircraft. The Air Force now spends $3.1 billion a year to buy 20 F-22s annually. But it will only be able to keep that up for a few years more. Then plans call for buying Joint Strike Fighters at a rate of 48 per year or more. It would require a substantial increase in the Air Force’s tactical air budget to accommodate both planes. And I don’t know anyone who regards procurement [spending] as a ‘growth area’ for the foreseeable future.”
Prudently, Aboulafia weighs his words. He takes pains to safeguard his reputation as a responsible analyst – he who is not really pro-F-22 (he is even so, since he is a consultant to the USAF) and who is rather pro-JSF. The above analysis raises the real problem, which is budgetary: for the additional 20 40 F-22s, the budgetary challenge is not insoluble, but beyond that? Watch out, says Aboulafia, for the third budget year, it will be necessary to choose between more F-22s and the annual budget for the JSF (test flights, debugging, first production aircraft).
Poor JSF (F-35) has lots and lots of problems. This comes as no surprise, since it has been known for a long time that there is an ongoing competition between it and the F-22. We can expect further delays in F-35 production and we can expect a serious cutback by the USAF in its order for the aircraft. Aboulafia does not go beyond that because there are countries that are committed to the JSF program, countries which the American government and US industry cannot afford to discourage or alienate. Beyond that, the future direction appears clear…
The USAF is in a very difficult spot. Currently, the average age of its aircraft is 24 years; in 2012, it will be 26 years. Production of the major fighter aircraft – the A-10, the F-15, the F-16 – began in the seventies. For 17 years, these aircraft have been in continual action, subject to maximum combat stress. Modernization of the fighter aircraft fleet was to begin in 1995; in point of fact, it has just begun with erratic deliveries of the F-22. Plans call for the JSF to be the mainstay of the modernization, but the JSF program is beset with a plethora of problems and will not be operational before 2014 at best. It is no secret that the program has already incurred a four year slippage since 2002. Lastly, the USAF’s budgetary requirements are known. In the current situation (without taking into account possible new orders for the F-22, as announced by Murtha), the USAF comes up $20 billion short annually for the next 10 years to meet its procurement requirements.
Air Force Magazine summarizes the situation in its November issue: “Today USAF is confronting problems on a scale rarely, if ever, seen since it was officially established on September 18, 1947.” The Pentagon brass is familiar with this type of alarmist hyperbole designed to obtain additional funds. This time the alarmism appears to be justified. It is true that the USAF has never known a more serious crisis. Loaded with funds, in a budgetary environment undergoing full expansion, the Air Force nonetheless finds itself in a very precarious structural situation. We are speaking here of fighter aircraft, since we are examining the situation of the F-15, but all the components of the fleet are similarly affected, to a greater or lesser extent. The USAF is on record that its top priority is the replacement of its in-flight KC-135 Stratotankers, whose production of about 700 aircraft extended from 1954 until 1962.
In none of these situations is modernization the answer, when structural fatigue of the aircraft’s metal components reaches the point of diminishing returns. As USAF Secretary Wynne put it, “[our] greatest fear is that the Eisenhower-vintage aircraft will simply start to crash. If that happens, they would either have to be kept flying – forcing USAF to essentially accept that risk – or be grounded, leaving the nation with only a few dozen 1980s vintage KC-10s to refuel the nation’s air armadas.”
The debate is open and it is understandable that viewpoints vary in favoring one category of aircraft or the other. The situation as it exists cannot, however, be swept aside by any accounting legerdemain. It is true that the USAF has entered, as Air Force Magazine says, the most serious crisis in its history. The situation is especially elucidating as regards the fate reserved for America’s militaristic power. This is particularly so, considering the fact that the USAF should – along with the Navy – in theory be the military service least affected by the catastrophe in Iraq. So much for theory.
Yes, the USAF is in a critical state. If one looks at the size of its forces, it is hard to credit this assertion. But what matters are the missions and commitments of those forces. The USAF has a presence throughout the world, at multitudinous bases and in manifold conflicts, with multiple missions of deterrence and of engagement. These deployments and these engagements did not spring forth overnight as a reaction, for example, to the 9/11 attack. They represent a fundamental structure, the groundwork for which began to be laid in 1944-45, with the victory in Europe and in the Pacific, and which was built upon throughout the period of the Cold War.
It was less a structure representing the power of the US or the ambitions of US power than a structure required (according to America’s assessment of the situation) by the existence of another, hostile, global power deemed to constitute a threat. This raison d’être did not survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, probably because of the mysterious effortlessness of that collapse and because of the mental and intellectual lightweights tasked with analyzing the events and drawing conclusions for the future. Even the US leaders – the US leaders of the Clinton years, imbued with the ‘Clinton spirit’, really believed that such power ‘came naturally’ to the US. This can be seen in the offhand remark addressed by Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s Secretary of State, to General Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 1993: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?” For the ‘Clinton spirit’ which was perfectly in harmony with the shift in thinking of those years (replacement of political and strategic thinking by the moralistic thinking of the liberal hawks), the main thing was the display of this power – the vision, the image – and the media mileage that could be gained. From this standpoint, it was important to maintain the structures of the US armed forces, as well as their foreign commitments and engagements, but it was out of the question to invest in modernization measures required to maintain an adequate level of combat readiness. Such expenditures were not ‘sexy’ enough for those accustomed to viewing the future in terms of tomorrow or the day after, i.e., no further than the end of their nose.
Since the end of the Cold War, the entire American power structure has modeled itself after that philosophy: highlighting the snapshot moment, (the ‘photo-op’); showing indifference to programming for future years or future decades. All of this would not have had so catastrophic an effect, had events continued as during the Clinton years; there would not have been the critical urgency, had we not found ourselves in a post-9/11 era. What changed with 11 September 2001 is the sudden, colossal inflation of operating and maintenance expenditures and of wartime deployments, with an equally sudden and massive increase in ‘accessory’ costs and expenditures which become humongous and unmanageable (‘outsourcing’, ‘reconstruction’, corruption and waste). On the other hand, the costs of equipment undergoing development also continued to obey the laws of inflation, with the customary technology ‘surcharge’, compounded by the post-9/11 extension of outsourcing mania to program management. These enormous new pressures literally overwhelmed the Pentagon which, despite a radically increased budget, was no longer able to cope with its expenditures, including those for the bare essentials. The upshot is what we are witnessing for the USAF. In these obscenely prosperous times ($650 billion 2008 DoD budget), the USAF finds itself with an annual shortfall of $20 billion just for its procurement requirements.
Yes, the USAF is in a critical state, but this is neither an accident nor a calamity wrought by God. It is the true, faithful reflection of the affliction that is assailing America’s military might. What is the solution for the crisis situation that the USAF finds itself in? Is there a solution that would not constitute an agonizing revision of the American policy of power? We are obliged to accept the judgment of Air Force Magazine according to which the current crisis is the gravest since its establishment in 1947. In reality, the crisis the USAF is undergoing is different in most respects from anything it has experienced in the past because it is – to use a term often encountered today – a systemic crisis. The USAF is taking the brunt of a variety of pressures not of its making. The same is true of its sister services, of course. That does not mean that the Air Force, and the other services, do not share in the responsibility. But that responsibility is itself linked to the systemic pressures in question. The USAF crisis represents the confluence of several systemic crises: a total loss of control over the management of major systems, in particular by the lack of control over the bureaucracy in charge of the programs; a total lack of control over partisan ‘interest groups’, be they the defense industry or those congressmen or congressional cliques with sufficient clout to influence what happens to Pentagon budget proposals; a global engagement in all the theaters affecting US power, active (combat) engagement or passive (peacetime deployment) engagement; acceptance of the universe of virtual reality, employed by the political world using advertising techniques, confounding appearance and reality.
These four major currents, among others, have led the USAF to operate as if as if it had far greater capabilities than it does. The illusion lasted several years; today it is in the process of vanishing, allowing the reality of the situation to emerge into the light of day. The initial solution that comes to mind is the customary reflex, illustrated by Murtha: additional aircraft, possibly more money (the 2008 budget will tell the tale). But such a ‘remedy’ comes within the category of the systemic crises affecting system management to which the USAF has fallen victim. The problems of the F 22, and especially those of the JSF/F-35, are known, And we are only talking about fighter aircraft. The other categories of aircraft are also in a tight spot, be they the in-flight tankers (the gigantic contract being negotiated to replace the KC-135 aircraft) or the strategic transport fleet (modernization of the C-5 and of the C-17 aircraft). The complexity of the management and financial imbroglios is unimaginable.
The only solution possible, which would dispel the main effects of the current crisis but would be only a temporary fix, has nothing to do with the USAF and everything to do with American foreign policy. It would entail adopting the approach of certain political groups, currently in the minority in America, which advocate abandoning the expansionist and bellicose policies that America and the world has had its full of; and pulling back to more measured, more modest ambitions – a sort of ‘selective isolationism’ as it were. For the USAF, that would mean a reduction in its commitments and, possibly, more modest but more reliable aircraft replacement choices (abandonment of the JSF for modernized versions of the F-15 and of the F 16 in the case of fighter aircraft). We are far, very far, from the prospect of such an eventuality. The ‘Empire’, and with it the USAF, are fast becoming hostages to fortune.